Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Discipleship Changes Things - The Words We Use

When we become disciples of Jesus - or become serious about following him - all kinds of things are supposed to change. The Jesus way of life is a new way; a way of thinking, believing, and doing that is often radically different than other non-Jesus ways of doing things. So it would follow that discipleship to Jesus begins to transform our lives in ways we may expect, and in ways we may not expect. So, what kinds of changes might we expect if we begin to authentically follow Jesus? Over time I want to flesh out several changes, but here is one you might not expect.

Our vocabulary changes, and I don't mean we stop swearing. We may very well stop swearing when we become disciples, but I am thinking of a much more significant shift in the way we understand and use words. Words are powerful things. Language is more life-shaping than you probably think. At the very least, words signify things and ideas. When we use words we are verbalizing what is going on around us or within us. We express relationships between things in the world and we express what is going on in our inner states. We say, "The light is green," and we mean to say something about not only a certain colored light, but to also convey meaning. We are saying, "it is your turn to drive." We can say, "I feel anxious," and reveal something going on within us that another person may not know unless we say it, and we may be communicating a need for sympathy or reassurance. In either case, we use words in ways that we believe will communicate with other people.

So it is with our use of words and ideas that appear both in Scripture and in the common culture. What do you think of when someone tells you they spent Thanksgiving with their "family"? What ideas and images are conjured in your mind when someone talks about their "anger"? What about "friendship," "work," or "love"? The images and ideas that arise in your mind when people use those words with you are the result of years of contextual content-filling. In other words, those words have already been defined for you (in large part) by your background, education, language, culture, and so forth. Exaggerating a bit, you might say that whoever or whatever filled your vocabulary with meaning has also given you your view of how the world works.

There is an unavoidable tension here for the disciple of Jesus. Christian theology and practice wants to use words one way and the rest of the world wants to use them in another way. We live in a pluralistic culture, becoming more so all the time, and each corner of our culture wants to use words in different ways.  The more ways a single word is used, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a straightforward belief in the way "we" think that word ought to be used. To put it another way, if the church teaches you one thing about "love" for one hour a week, and media teaches you a very different thing about "love" 40-60 hours a week, which meaning will be easier to believe? And if you want to believe what the church teaches about "love" then you will need to work harder at it.

But then, it seems this is one thing the follower of Christ learns to do if they plan on being genuine disciples. If we are discipled by someone or something, we are taught a view of the world by them. The disciple is striving to learn the Jesus way of life, including the Jesus way of using words. This means that we learn how to begin with sound biblical ways of understanding words and their respective concepts and carry them into our respective niches of society. What normally happens is the reverse is the case. Church and Christian theology often feel odd or antiquated to us because we have let other things define the terms for us.

So, what does it mean for you to robustly learn and absorb the biblical meaning of "love" or "forgiveness" or "work" and then engage your world? We are all waiting to see, and we will all be better for it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Links with Little Context

What are the rights of Donor-Conceived People? by Alana S. Newman

We’ve created a class of people who are manufactured, and treat them as less-than-fully human, demanding that they be grateful for whatever circumstances we give them. While fathers of traditionally conceived human beings are chased down and forced to make child support payments as a minimal standard of care, people conceived commercially are reprimanded when they question the anonymous voids that their biological fathers so “lovingly” left.

Five Ways Liberals Ignore Science by David Harsanyi

It’s no big deal for us to ask Republican evolution skeptics to raise their hands or force a bogus Senate vote to try and shame Republicans, yet no reporter would ever think to ask a pro-choice politician if they believe life begins at conception. Sometimes denialism matters and sometimes it doesn’t.

Why It Matters That the Exodus Really Happened by Gregory Alan Thorbury

Truth matters. People want to know the answers: the who, the what, the when, the how, and the why. And without providing those little truths, they may never learn of the ultimate Truth behind them.

Molecular Biology Has Failed to Yeild a Grand "Tree of Life"  by Casey Luskin

Unfortunately, one assumption that these evolutionary biologists aren't willing to re-evaluate is the assumption that universal common ancestry is correct. They appeal to a myriad of ad hoc arguments -- horizontal gene transfer, long branch attraction, rapid evolution, different rates of evolution, coalescent theory, incomplete sampling, flawed methodology, and convergent evolution -- to explain away inconvenient data which doesn't fit the coveted treelike pattern. As a 2012 paper stated, "phylogenetic conflict is common, and frequently the norm rather than the exception." At the end of the day, the dream that DNA sequence data would fit into a nice-neat tree of life has failed, and with it a key prediction of neo-Darwinian theory.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Is The "Pastor as Leader" Paradigm Destroying Pastors?

In his refreshing book, Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul, Lance Witt collects several distressing statistics regarding pastors and their vocation:

1,500 pastors leave the ministry permanently each month in America. 80% of pastors and 85% of their spouses feel discouraged in their roles....Over 50% of pastors are so discouraged they would leave the ministry if they could but have no other way of making a living. Over 50% of pastors’ wives feel that their husband entering ministry was the most destructive thing to ever happen to their families. 30% of pastors said they had either been in an ongoing affair or had a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner. 71% of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis. One out of every ten ministers will actually retire as a minister.

There is a lot to be said about what these stats represent, and Witt does a wonderful job talking about the importance of restoring the pastor's soul and leading from the depths that can be created by God. But there is something more to be said. It is a frustration I have with the 'pastor as leader' model that has become a kind of talisman in the evangelical world over the past three decade.

Pastors are not CEO-style leaders. Yet they have been treated as such and expected to lead and produce results like captains of industry. My working theory is that one significant reason pastors have such an incredible failure and dropout rate right now is that they are pressured to be the kinds of things they are not by nature. Here is a nutshell version of how my theory works.

1. Our culture and our churches have almost completely lost a biblical definition of the role of pastor.
2. Our culture and our churches are enamored with the seemingly magical techniques of corporate management.
3. Because we lost the one and learned the other, we imposed corporate-style management on pastors.
4. That kind of leadership requires a certain kind of leader to make it "work" and most people called into the pastorate are not that kind of leader.
5. Hence, most pastors quickly become frustrated, depressed, and angry.

So, there it is. I hope over the next few days to tease out each assertion and make more sense of what we have done to pastors and the church and how, God willing, we can reverse course.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Work is a Bountiful Gift

Charles Wesley wrote this hymn encouraging believers to honor God in their workaday lives.

Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I Go

                Forth in thy Name, O Lord, I go,
                my daily labor to pursue;
                thee, only thee, resolved to know
                in all I think or speak or do.

                The task thy wisdom hath assigned,
                O let me cheerfully fulfill;
                in all my works thy presence find,
                and prove thy good and perfect will.

                Thee may I set at my right hand,
                whose eyes mine inmost substance see,
                and labor on at thy command,
                and offer all my works to thee.

                For thee delightfully employ
                What e'er thy bounteous grace hath given
                And run my course with even joy,
                and closely walk with thee to heaven.

This hymn affirms some wonderful things about the Christian view of work and worship.

God has graciously and wisely assigned us our task. Work, biblically speaking, is a bountiful gift from God in which we engage in God's calling, honor God, love our neighbor, and take part in the foreshadowing of the coming kingdom of God. Yes, really, this is how the Christian faith looks at work.

The best way to 'take God to work' with us is to recognize that he is already there. We do not need to bring God kicking and screaming into our daily lives where we do not really know where he fits anyway. He is already ahead of us working in the lives of those we live and work with, and he can even be at work in the labor itself.

When we are aware of God's presence and wisdom within our labors, there can be delight and joy. It is the perspective shift that makes this possible - God is here at work in my/our labors which he has graciously given.

We are having a great time at Living Hope Church on Tuesday nights in our series, "The Work God Made Us For" digging into these issues and what Scripture has to say about them. You are invited!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Church as a Public Institution

James Davison Hunter on the politicization of American culture in "To Change the World":

"If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicization is the turn toward law and politics - the instrumentality of the state - to find solutions to public problems....This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases." (pg. 102)

"It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant - and for some the only adequate - expression of our collective life....This in turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues." (pg. 106)

I find Hunter's analysis here hauntingly and almost depressingly accurate. I say "almost" because I believe the accuracy of what he portrays opens a door for the church to step in as that public institution that has other, non-political and non-legal ways of answering our common problems. But this requires that the church and her leaders learn how to address the issues of the day and the universal issues of the human condition without waiting on those in public power to lead the way. Here are some thoughts on how that may happen.

The church has answers the state will never truly grasp. Even if most people in positions of legal, media, educational, and political power were genuine followers of Jesus Christ, we live in a pluralistic culture in which the imposition of "Christian" laws will, in the end, do only a little good. The church must learn to lead the way. Do not wait for a vote to have a sweeping cultural consequence. Step up and address life with the unique set of resources the church has at its command.

Our theology must lead the way. We are currently told that theology is backwards, coercive, and an outdated way of thinking in our modern age. But that is what people who do not understand Christian theology tell us, so why do we have any reason at all to believe their dismissive point of view? Theology well done, with its eyes wide open to all of God's truth, is a powerful and wide-ranging guide for our common problems. Maybe one reason the world sees us like specialists in alchemy and phrenology is because we have not taken our theology seriously enough.

Church leaders need to broaden their own education and understanding of the world. Specifically, I believe pastors need to stop being experts in mid-level management techniques and start being experts in the kingdom of God and the human soul. Pastors ought to read broadly and often. They need to acquaint themselves with the best out there in the fields of science, sociology, psychology, history, biography, philosophy, theology, and more. Then their sermons need to reflect that self-education.

The church needs to be courageous. One of the themes carried through the book of Acts is that Christians "spoke boldly" when they had the chance. Christians carry a message that sticks out and will be called names, but it is a message that has the power to save and transform lives. But that will only happen when the church learns to be winsome, wise, and bold.

Friday, January 16, 2015

How To Avoid Discipleship - Mishandle Doubt

Doubt is natural in every human life on nearly every conceivable level. In human relationships there are doubts about loyalties, loves, behavior, and intentions. In education there is doubt about value and truth. In business there is doubt about decision making, markets, and people. And on the story goes.

Certainty, genuine certainty, is rare. Often, when humans project certainty they are ripe for a dislocation of their beliefs unless they have already processed their doubts. False certainty is a thin defense against the inevitable waves of doubt. A Christian will not settle their doubts or the doubts of others by pretending to ‘have it all together’ or acting as if they have all the answers to all the difficult questions.

In my experience, doubt is not only universal, it can be a powerful teacher. If doubt is handled well it can lead us into genuine insight and a deeper relationship with God. If doubt is handled poorly, it can lead either to a false and thin confidence or a shipwrecked faith. Here are some quick thoughts on how not to handle doubt.

Do not pretend they don’t exist. This may be the first line of defense when a genuine issue arises within our hearts and minds or in conversation with a friend, but the tendency to act as if the doubt does not exist or is not significant actually gives more weight to the doubt. Over time a person will begin to think that because they or their Christian friends were unable to even admit the doubt, it must be scary enough to be true.

Do not give or accept trite, quick answers. This has the same long-term consequence as refusing to admit they are real. Simplistic answers do not suffice to deal with significant issues or problems people face, which raise doubts about God and his nature. Suffering and loss are significant, and so should be the process of dealing with them in light of the existence of a good and providential God. Feel enough confidence in God’s active care of people to take time and wrestle with real issues.

Do not give in. The Christian faith is true; it’s all true. Giving in is common among those who struggle with doubt, but that need not be the case. Others have been where you are and others have been in more dire situations than you and they have found God to be just and true. You can, too. God knows we struggle with doubt, so he meets people in deep and powerful ways when they seek him in the midst of their personal darkness. I found a God who cares in the depths of feeling minuscule and I no longer worry about his loving attention. Let your doubt lead you to a revelation of his unchanging character. You cannot do that if you give in.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Opening the Faith to Examination

Much has been written in response to the recent Newsweek article by Kurt Eichenwald, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” So much so, that the various and obvious mistakes and oversimplifications by the author have been revealed and the article itself shown to be, fundamentally, a screed. But if the article is useless in actually understanding the ins and outs of biblical interpretation and translation, it may be ironically useful in highlighting a virtue of the Christian faith.

It is often argued that Christianity is believed on faith (faith defined as ‘against good reasons’), and is thus fundamentally anti-intellectual. It is said that if Christians would only open their minds to reason, skepticism, and science they will see the error of their ways. The Christian, in short, does not think and their faith is ripe for the shredding. When push comes to shove, however, it turns out that Christianity is open to rational investigation and the current trend of anti-Christian skepticism and New Atheism is a closed loop of fundamentalism.

In his Vital Magazine article, “Who’s Misunderstood,Newsweek?”, George P. Wood makes this point, “Yes, I want to take Eichenwald to task for some of the unfounded things he wrote in this article. But I also want to listen to him. My friend Craig S. Keener once said, ‘When we fail at self-critique, God sometimes raises up outsiders to help us (gently or not).’ Might Eichenwald—despite the many errors of fact and judgment in his piece—nonetheless be raising some important questions?” George follows this up with a set of questions worth asking and answering as well as we can.

He is right to note both things: Eichenwald’s article is an intellectual embarrassment, and the Christian faith still takes the challenge and the questions seriously. As a matter of theology and history – principle and practice – the Christian faith is an open book. Quite literally our book has been open to scrutiny and study since day one and anyone who tells you differently has not done their homework. Christian theologians have opened their formulations to scholarly and practical criticism. This necessary virtue of the Christian faith can be summed up in the questions, “Is it true?” and “Does it make sense of life?” The fact that plenty of Christians and individual churches have embraced blind faith does not negate our actual theology and historical practice.

The Christian famously believes that all truth is God’s truth, thus the believer should not be afraid of questions and differing points of view. If an issue is raised that the Christian does not know what to do with, I guarantee someone else has. Most challenges to the Christian faith are nothing new, so they have been answered in one form or another for hundreds of years by some of the world’s leading thinkers. If the challenge comes from a new corner of science or philosophy, the Christian only needs to draw on the deep well of current, credible resources.

The Christian also believes that their faith will be refined and strengthened the closer to the truth they come. We believe deeply in truth and the existence of a God who is the very ground of being, so it is important for us to come closer and closer to our God. In his epistles, Paul consistently commends knowledge of God (Greek, scientia) to his readers and says that it is vital for their growth toward Christ. The Old Testament has an entire genre of literature called Wisdom Literature which commends both intellectual knowledge of God and wise living in the ways of God. Thinking and living in the open air of investigation is in the Christian’s blood.

In stark contrast, the current form of atheism is like two of the three famous monkeys sitting on a fence. Their hands are over their eyes so they will not see other points of view, their hands are over their ears so they will not hear criticism of their own views, but their mouths are wide open.